I’ve visited London 5 times so far and each visit keeps me coming back for more. Every time I visit a city, I try to come up with a list of the “top things to do” by reading reviews on Trip Advisor and Rick Steves to plan an unforgettable trip. The list will expand or contract based upon the amount of time I have. You can always get the typical tour ideas from mainstream websites, but I like to mix city/historical tours with off-the-beaten path activities. Below is a list of my top 10 things to do when visiting the fabulously energized city of London during the fall & winter (but most of the activities are available year around).
Somerset House Ice Rink (photo credit London Insider)
10. Go Ice Skating.
During the winter (December/January) various spots around London host outdoor ice skating rinks. London has some fantastic places where you can lace up your skates and twirl around on the ice. With places like Somerset House, The Natural History Museum, Hyde Park and The Tower of London all hosting rinks, you can combine your sightseeing with skating! And then warm up with hot chocolate or go enjoy afternoon tea.
Porn Star martini at the Dollar Bar & Grill
9. Drink a “Porn Star” martini at the Dollar Grill & Martini Lounge.
Okay, when I tell you that this is the best drink ever…I am not lying. Seriously. It’s fabulous! I’m not really a martini connoisseur (regardless of how hard Carrie and the girls tried to lure me in during the “Sex in the City” heyday). However, the “Porn Star” martini is like liquid heaven. It’s made with passion fruit, vodka, vanilla syrup and a shot of champagne. I was introduced to this magnificent drink at the Dollar Grill & Martini Lounge (which had excellent food as well). Can’t get to London but are dying to try this drink? Here are the ingredients & instructions. Enjoy!!
8. Visit the National Portrait Gallery and British Museum.
First, these museums are AMAZING! Second, they are free. Seriously. What can be better than visiting a free museum filled with cool relics and paintings? Want to see the actual Rosetta Stone (tip: it doesn’t come in a yellow box) or pieces of the Parthenon? Check out the British Museum. Want to see paintings of Henry VIII, his wives and children? Check out the National Portrait Gallery. I’m usually not a big museum lover (although I find myself visiting one on every trip I take mostly just because I love history), but these two museums are so interesting and easy to navigate that you can lose track of time.
I always like to see pictures of historical figures which made the National Portrait Gallery fascinating. I’ve seen plenty of pictures of Queen Elizabeth I and her daddy, Henry 8, but it’s cool to see original paintings. My absolute favorite painting is of the Earl of Southampton who was a playboy extraordinaire. You didn’t even need to read his bio to know. His picture said it all. When you looked at the other paintings of men from that era, they had short-cropped hair. Southampton had long flowing locks down to the middle of his back, a swagger to him, and a look that said, “you know you want me…don’t deny it. I want myself.” He was so debonair that while Liz 1 was beheading folks who even looked like they thought she had bad breath, this joker just got some jail time for organizing her overthrow. Then he was pardoned! That’s right. Earl Rapunzel got out and was like, “take that, take that…can’t stop, won’t stop…baaaaad boooooyyyy!” Check him out: Earl of Southampton.
7. Drink hot chocolate while strolling through Trafalgar Square.
Cold weather and hot chocolate go together like peas and carrots. After you leave the National Gallery, why not stroll around Trafalgar Square with a nice hot cup of cocoa and take in the holiday decorations (the Christmas tree is usually spectacular), listen to carolers or just people watch?
Christmas tree in Trafalgar Square
6. See a Musical!
You can’t go to London without checking out one of their many fabulous shows. It’s like going to NYC without checking out Broadway. Low on funds? Go to TKTS (located at Leicester Square) to buy half-priced tickets for West End plays, operas and musicals the day of.
Afternoon Tea @ the National Gallery Cafe
5. Enjoy Afternoon Tea.
You can’t visit London without having afternoon tea. I find myself looking forward to 3pm so I can sample delicious cucumber sandwiches, scones with various jams, delicious tartes & cupcakes and my favorite flavor of tea with a side of a tall glass of champagne. To.Die.For. My favorite spots are the Orangerie (at Kensington Palace) and the National Gallery Cafe (best scones in London).
4. Cruise the Thames.
Sail along the Thames under the London Bridge, view the Tower of London, see Shakespeare’s Globe, take in the awesome sight of Big Ben…these are just a few things you will do on your cruise. The ride (which can be a hop on/hop off or an hour-long sail…depending on the company you choose) comes with commentary and is a good introduction to the sights of London along the famous Thames.
3. Visit Westminster Abbey.
I’m a history buff…but even if you aren’t, this place is interesting. You can stroll the halls and see where the coronations have taken place since 1066 (complete with tv’s showing Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation); and it’s the resting place of varying famous people (including William Shakespeare) and 17 monarchs (i.e. Henry VIII with his crazy self). Elizabeth I is buried ON TOP of her sister, Mary (or, as she was known, “Bloody Mary”…which actually makes me a bit thirsty for a cool beverage). For those of you who aren’t up on your Tudor history, Mary was the daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon while Elizabeth I (known as “The Virgin Queen”) was the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. So, Liz’s mama stole her daddy (Henry) from his 1st wife (Catherine) but later found out he was no prize when he had her decaptitated for allegedly being a traitor and having an incestuous relationship with her brother. Which I mean, with the royals marrying 1st cousins and such back then, that is sort of like the pot calling the kettle black. It also explains the whole “Deliverance” vibe some of them had…you just don’t mix the blood lines like that.
Henry 8 changed the official religion of England from Catholicism to Protestant to divorce Catherine when the Pope refused to grant him an annulment so he could marry his new boo, Anne Boleyn. Of course, if lil Annie knew that Henry would turn his craziness on her and get all Betty Broderick (the quintessential Lifetime movie for love gone crazy), I’m sure she would’ve reserved her charms for someone else. But, power is a heady drug that distorts your common sense. All she could see is the finery and being able to tell her haters to kiss her ass once she was Queen of England. I can relate. Anyway, Mary was a strict Roman Catholic like her mama and changed the official religion of England from Protestant back to Catholicism once she was able to take the throne (after her sickly younger brother passed away as a child). But Mary wasn’t content with just changing the religion…she also rounded up people who refused to convert to Catholicism and had them burned alive at the stake. I’m pretty sure that Jesus wasn’t co-signing that.
Clearly Mary had a touch of the crazy like her daddy and after being locked away from her mama for years due to her father’s libido, it couldn’t have been too much of a surprise. After Mary was made queen, she locked Elizabeth (Liz 1) in the Tower of London for a while because she thought Liz was in on a plot to kill her. Which…she probably was. That’s just how they rolled back then. But, being locked away in the tower and being labeled a traitor did nothing to get Mary in Liz’s good graces. When poor Mary’s fortunes turned and she passed away, Liz was crowned Queen of England. She had her sister buried at Westminster…and when she died years later, had her tomb placed on top of Mary. For now and for all eternity, Mary will reside beneath Liz in the Abbey. I’m sure Liz was like, “How you like me now, sis?”
The Tudor history is fascinating. I would recommend reading a series of books by Phillipa Gregory to gain a thorough overview (The Other Boleyn Girl, The Virgin Queen, etc). I can say that being royalty back in the day was a death sentence!
Tower of London
2. Visit the Tower of London.
A visit to the tower is a must. This castle is located on the River Thames close to the Tower Bridge. It’s famous for housing the Crown Jewels and for being the “prison” of royalty hundreds of years ago (Anne Boleyn was beheaded here). If you ever visit the Tower of London, you will hear the story about the 2 young sons of the last York king (of the War of the Roses fame), Richard III, who (after Richard had died), were sent to the tower by their uncle (Richard’s brother) under the guise of keeping them safe. However, it’s believed they were murdered because their bodies were never found (they were around 13 and 8 or something like that…I can’t remember the exact ages). Anyway, the war ended when Henry 7 defeated the uncle and married Richard III’s daughter to unite the houses. Then, spawned crazy Henry 8.
The Original Tour…hop on/hop off bus
1. Ride the Hop On/Hop Off bus.
What visit is complete without a tour on the Hop On/Hop Off bus? There are several tour companies that offer this service (I usually do the Original Tour). They offer a 48 hour pass & 3 routes. The pass includes free walking tours and a free Thames River cruise. You can save some money by purchasing online. This is a great way to get a good overview and layout of this wonderful city before or during sightseeing. These bus tours usually offer live or recorded commentaries. The live commentary tours are better, in my opinion, since there is more interaction.
Regardless of what activities you decide to do, enjoy your time & be safe! Cheers!